The European Union has repeatedly experienced setbacks since it came into being. "But this is the first time I have actually become really worried," admits Professor Michèle Knodt of the Institute of Political Science of TU Darmstadt. "The financial crisis was bad enough, and now with the development of the refugee crisis it’s not become any easier to sustain the concept of European unity. Currently, it is essentially the Eastern Europeans at loggerheads with the Western and Northern Europeans." The East is stonewalling when it comes to accepting refugees, and is also failing to cooperate in finding solutions to other political problems.
Knodt cites Poland as an example. "The EU has always worked on a consensus basis. Solidarity has been a major aspect of the EU concept since the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. Poland has been particularly active in calling for solidarity with regard to the energy policies of the other EU countries and has been loudly demanding the EU work towards energy security. It is still dependent on Russian gas to a considerable degree. So, as far as energy is concerned, Poland has been constantly reminding the EU that we all need to stick together." And, yet, as soon as the refugee problem comes into play, the idea of solidarity seems to instantly go out the window. In view of this, Knodt opines: "What we need is a new core narrative from the EU, but it doesn't yet look like we'll be seeing this anytime soon."
In December 2015, Goethe University Frankfurt, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, and TU Darmstadt joined together to form the strategic Rhine-Main Universities alliance. "On the very same day, we also celebrated the inauguration of our Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence," Knodt recalls.
Knodt collaborated with Professor Arne Niemann of the Institute of Political Science of JGU on a proposal submitted to the European Commission for support for the establishment of a Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence EU in Global Dialogue. "There is a lot of competition in the case of proposals like this." Their concept was convincing and won them the necessary funding. Knodt and Niemann have known each other for a long time and both hold an EU-sponsored Jean Monnet Chair of European Integration. In addition, at their own universities, they have set up various research units to study EU foreign policy, which now supplement the newly created Centre of Excellence.
"What we do at the Jean Monnet Centre ties in with what we are already working on. This gives us the opportunity to go into more depth but also to broaden our horizons and integrate new aspects." At CEDI, the focus is on interdisciplinary teaching and research. Moreover, it also aims to engage with the broader public and to stimulate interest in aspects relating to the EU.
One of the major topics that TU Darmstadt addresses on an interdisciplinary level is EU energy policy. The engineers at its Energy Center conduct research here side by side with academics from a wide range of other disciplines. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research was certainly impressed, and in 2015 it recruited TU Darmstadt for its Kopernikus program, the largest research undertaking to date in the field of energy transition. TU Darmstadt is now involved in three of the four Kopernikus projects. Knodt herself is a board member and acts as one of the proposal applicants for a consortium that is considering energy transition in terms of a process that will require the transformation of society as a whole.
The research performed at the Jean Monnet Centre supports the work being done in this and similar projects. Knodt points out that CEDI plays an important role in a network of projects and at the same time acts as a major source of impetus thanks to its diverse activities. One of its workshops was concerned with the EU in crisis. "We discussed what effect crises have on EU institutions. In such situations, it is not uncommon for the various heads of state to go their own individual ways. In the meantime, this seems to have become the usual state of affairs." The EU institutions are being circumnavigated or confronted with done deals. "What comes of this is not necessarily better than what the EU would have achieved, while at the same time it undermines the authority of the European Union."
Knodt's colleague in Mainz, Professor Arne Niemann, gives an example from recent history to show how effectively the EU actually functions. In 2013, when the governments of Serbia and Kosovo finally managed to reach an agreement in Brussels, this was essentially the result of the EU's ability to initiate a dialog between the two quarreling parties. "The EU was very successful as a mediator in the Kosovo dispute," emphasizes Niemann. "In recent years it has become increasingly active in this area, and there is a considerable demand for getting the EU on board when it comes to the resolution of conflicts."
CEDI held a workshop shortly after its establishment, which focused on the EU as a mediator in international peace negotiations. "We have not yet sufficiently explored this new role," explains Niemann, but then adds: "In this context, the EU is often not considered to be as problematic as the USA, for example. In the global arena, it is generally seen as lacking the USA's propensity to be too bellicose and is not perceived to be acting so much out of self-interest. The EU has become a very interesting actor on the world stage and a relatively new contributor to certain areas of politics, such as security policy."
The establishment of CEDI has come at a time in which the EU is facing many challenges. The European Union is making headlines, but the corresponding stories are not always positive. Just like Knodt, Niemann finds the refugee crisis a cause for disquiet. It could turn out to be the acid test that shows whether the various countries of the EU have the will to stay together.
"We also held a workshop on this topic," discloses Niemann. Over two days, the most varied facets of EU refugee policy were put under the spotlight. "Among other things, we also considered the rise of right-wing populist parties against the background of the refugee crisis. After all, there's not just the AfD here in Germany, but also the Front National in France and UKIP in Britain. Right-wing populist parties are represented in the governments of Poland and Hungary."
All of these events demonstrate that the newly established CEDI has already found its feet. Its research covers a wide field of topics. "TU Darmstadt and JGU complement each other here perfectly," comments Niemann. "A special kind of team dynamics has developed. As far as I am concerned, the collaboration to date has not only generated a lot of new insights but has also been really enjoyable."
CEDI will be initially funded by the European Commission for three years. During these three years, the two universities plan to extend their courses of study in the field of European integration. "Existing projects, the future of which had previously been uncertain, are now on a more solid basis," concludes Niemann. And when those three years are up? "We will have to wait and see. The positive reaction to our proposal has shown how much potential we have. Perhaps we have other options for gaining further support."